Monday, August 23, 2010

Hurricane Katrina: The Spirit of New Orleans

No other story about New Orleans matches the efforts of citizens who took the initiative to clean up the mess left by the Hurricane Katrina and begin rebuilding their city. Likewise, people’s determination to return home turned out to be the driving force toward recovery—even amid heartache, suffering, psychological trauma and incredible inconvenience.

But this wasn’t easy. Within a month after Hurricane Katrina tore through the Gulf coast, questions arose in other parts of the country about whether New Orleans could or should endure.

Known as the “Great Footprint Debate,” three options emerged regarding the fate of the flooded city: (1) abandon everything; (2) maintain everything in favor of the social and economic assets of the city despite its geological truths; (3) concede the risks and rebuild the city on higher ground.

“Topography does matter,” said Richard Campanella, associate director of Tulane University's Center for Bioenvironmental Research and a research professor with Tulane's Department of Earth and Environmental Science. He pointed out that sea levels have increased by four inches during the 20th century and predicted that in another 100 years they will rise another 41 inches. He spoke recently at the annual American Planners Association conference.

But, five years after Katrina, New Orleans and its people have endured. The question now is: how did they do it?

Tom Piazza wrote a wonderful, intimate book shortly after Katrina titled Why New Orleans Matters in an attempt to answer this question.

The spirit of New Orleans, he suggests, arises from people’s view of mortality and their utter connection to the place where they live. What it boils down to is a philosophy that espouses gratitude for another day since no one knows what tomorrow may bring. It is not a fatalistic or Pollyanna view of life but rather one that is present-oriented and open to all possibilities, something very difficult for most Americans to understand because of our rushed, busy and controlled lives.

This Weltanschauung has its roots in Caribbean and African nature religions that believe creation generously gives of its abundance so that human beings can respond to the Creator with expressions of thanks and by extending their generosity to others in imitation of Nature. Such a view is different from the New Englander’s Calvinism of judgment and renunciation or the fundamentalist’s notions that God selects a chosen few and then rids the world of sinners. Orleanians consciously give thanks for a new day, a deep friendship, a neighborhood picnic, a spontaneous parade or just simply being alive.

Nothing illustrates this view better than the famous jazz funeral. As strange as it may seem, there is a profound soulfulness that begins the procession in a slow, solemn dirge as the grieving family leaves the church and heads to the cemetery. “Second liners” join in and eventually the music turns to lively jazz with dancing and strutting.

This is not silliness, says Piazza, but rather “the triumph over the pain, the recognition of life's brevity.” And the message is that everyone attending the funeral has escaped death today so let’s celebrate that.

Katrina left Orleanians with incredible hardships that make daily living extremely stressful, especially for the poor. There isn’t enough public transportation, and neighborhood stores are sometimes two and three miles away. Roads are still in disrepair and the recognizable landscape has been drastically altered as commercial and residential buildings were destroyed and removed. Many shopping centers remain vacant. This is all emotionally and psychologically draining and disorienting; depression and suicide rates have jumped since Katrina. So when a store re-opens, people indulge in a great celebration amid their grief, anger, joy, worry and hope, according to city officials.

“Even in its most desperate precincts [New Orleans] is a city of deep and powerful humanity, of endurance, resilience, humor and affirmation in the face of adversity,” says Piazza.

The HBO series, “Treme,” which takes place in the aftermath of Katrina in the famous neighborhood of the same name, also illustrates this soulfulness. In the first episode people are feeling sad, tired and devastated, so they take up their musical instruments and start a parade. Such a reaction is not an escape or a reluctance to face grim realities. Rather, it’s a spiritual response that comes out of the Black gospel tradition of “No cross, no crown.” In other words, you can’t appreciate the good if you don’t know the bad. So you are obliged to accept your burden, finiteness, and suffering and then connect to the people around you. Actually, this is one major reason why neighborhoods have been so strong in New Orleans and why so many people have strived to return home.

Vera Triplett, a professor of counseling at Our Lady of Holy Cross College, who is a “proud resident of the Gentilly Neighborhood responded to the footprint debate with comparisons to the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in San Francisco and 9/11 in New York City:

“I’ve never heard anyone ask whether their city would come back,” she said. “I take that as an insult….This is my home. I have every right to come back to it. And I’ll come back no matter how many times it floods.”

But Triplett isn’t just talk. She is one of many local individuals from a number of different projects that stepped forward to lead in the recovery of her neighborhood. After starting the Gentilly Civic Improvement Association, which aims to give residents a voice in the rebuilding their neighborhoods, she later represented Gentilly in the Rebuilding New Orleans Initiative funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. The initiative developed the United New Orleans Plan (UNOP), which was accepted by the city council and adopted as the city’s master plan in 2007.

UNOP addresses specific actions necessary to facilitate the recovery and rebuilding of New Orleans through input from local citizens instead of just the technicians, politicians and wealthy landowners.

“People came in with questions and concerns,” said Triplett in an interview with American City magazine on the UNOP process. “That’s when I first began to see some of the pain and distress, frustration and sheer exhaustion. Not a lot of people understood what the people of New Orleans were going through….We provided practical things like public transportation, childcare and two full meals….The other integral thing was that there were entertainment breaks. Little personal dance breaks to make people feel better.”

Many other good things have occurred over the past five years, which have made Orleanians proud and outsiders amazed, according to city officials. Various independent political entities (the city, parishes, neighborhoods and the state) are now working together toward recovery. The city's newspaper has improved its coverage and transparency. Unemployment is only five to six percent due to the vast amount of rebuilding and thanks to the billions of federal dollars that have come in for roads, housing and other reconstruction projects—although much more is needed.

City Park, a 1300-acre urban park, the seventh largest in the country and bigger than New York's Central Park suffered $43 million worth of damage. Katrina took down 1,000 trees including many live oaks. Piles of debris, some measuring 30 to 40 feet high, were collected in the park and later hauled away. The park's executive director, Bob Beck, almost single-handedly raised millions of dollars to rebuild the park and has succeeded in bringing much of it back to its former splendor.

Piazza does not shirk from acknowledging New Orleans’ many problems, many of which were there before Katrina: crime, corruption, bad schools, extreme poverty, racism and the stark mismanagement of the city as well as the threat of violent weather and the loss of wetlands. Things are definitely turning around for the city although city planners admit that recovery will probably take 20 years. Then came the oil spill and its threat to fishing, tourism and the loss of wildlife in the Gulf and the bayous.

Clearly, a loss of New Orleans would be a tragedy so I pray that Orleanians—and people in the entire Gulf region—get through this latest dreadful crisis. I suspect they’ll do it through deliberate citizen action and participation and in the spirit of New Orleans that defiantly declares: “I’m here, I’m still alive and I’m willing to take whatever comes.” What a model of recovery from disaster for all Americans!

Friday, August 20, 2010

Hurricane Katrina: How Music Helped Save New Orleans

No other American city values music the way New Orleans does. Heck, one of its airports is named after legendary musician Louis Armstrong!

Music is not something that is tangible, linear or measurable, said Nick Spitzer, producer and host of the National Public Radio show “American Routes,” but it is one of the things people value.

Even in the midst of their own gloom over Hurricane Katrina’s destruction where homes and neighborhoods were crushed and where there was little infrastructure and not much support from state or federal government, music helped many evacuees rebuild their lives with a strong hope in the future and a deep connection to a place they loved.

“That's what life's about,” said Spitzer, “creating space for creativity.”

Spitzer and several jazz musicians spoke at the annual conference of the American Planning Association held recently in New Orleans where many sessions discussed the recovery effort after Hurricane Katrina.

Before the storm hit, Benny "Big Benny" Pete, tuba player and leader of the Hot 8 Brass Band, headed to Atlanta with his family. Only two of his band members were there while the rest were scattered all over the country. One day he received a phone call to reunite the band in Baton Rouge to perform for the evacuees living there. He jumped at the chance—despite the fact that neither he nor any of the band members had their instruments. Students from Louisiana State University and local high schools loaned them their band instruments just to hear a concert.

Pete said that all he cared about was playing music again but he soon realized how important it was for the evacuees who were homesick and traumatized by Katrina to hear their music.

“We found out the power of our music, said Pete, quite surprised. “We didn't understand that before but it was music that pulled us all together. It showed us the value and power of our culture.”

The music Hot 8 performed that day hearkened back to the social aid and pleasure clubs, said Pete, where a well-dressed band led a parade down the street, forming the “first line,” while onlookers joined them to form the “second line” with strutting, jumping and high-stepping underneath their decorated parasols as they blew whistles and waved feathered fans.

These clubs, called benevolent societies, developed in New Orleans during the mid- to late-1800s to help poor African Americans, and later other ethnic groups, defray health care costs, funeral expenses, and other financial hardships. The presence of these societies gradually fostered a sense of community among the people as they provided charitable works and hosted social events. The benevolent societies were also responsible for the “jazz funerals” where bands play somber, processional music from the church to the cemetery. On the way back, the music became more upbeat and joyous as mourners celebrated the deceased’s life with tears and joy.

The evacuees living in Baton Rouge recognized their culture and joined in the “second line,” said Pete. Once they returned to the city to pick up the pieces of their lives, they often held similar parades in order to obtain some relief, even though the familiar stores and landmarks of their streetscape were missing because of the storm.

Irma Thomas, known as the Soul Queen of New Orleans, said that storms have been a part of her life and career over the past 50 years and that she has left New Orleans three times due to hurricanes. Katrina, however, took on new meaning for her.

“Katrina gave us a look at the way we are and how vulnerable we are to weather,” she said. “It also showed us how lax and unconcerned government agencies are.”

When Katrina hit, Ms. Thomas was in Austin, Tex., on a gig. She said she saw the rooftop of her home in water on television.

“You always know where you live,” she said. “You know it.”

She and her husband lost both their home and her club, the Lions Den.

However, the tragedy didn't sink in for her until one night she sang “Back Water Blues,” a song written in the 1930s about a Louisiana storm. When she came to the line: “I went high on a hill and got no place to go,” she lost it in front of her audience.

Ms. Thomas lived in the 9th Ward. Like all evacuees who were dispersed throughout the country, she and her husband had to decide whether or not to return to New Orleans. For two years they stayed in Gonzales, 60 miles upriver, until they were able to return home “where their hearts were.”

Katrina inspired Ms. Thomas' new album, After the Rain, which won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album in 2007.

“Music orients us to the place and provides the creative spark for ourselves and the whole city,” she said. “Music was all Orleanians had after Katrina.”

In fact, the city lost a lot of its musicians, many of whom lived in the 9th Ward. They either couldn't return home because of finances (many work for cash and don’t have a credit record) or the older ones were on tour in Europe.

Losing many of the city’s musicians created a problem for young people looking to be mentored by them. Most schools had closed and opportunities for kids to join bands and play music were severely reduced. As a result, the first Mardi Gras after Katrina had few high school marching bands playing in the parades.

“We want to let them know that they have a culture,” said Pete. “Without that [music] connection, they are lost. We needed to let them know that they have a rich culture here in New Orleans.”

“Music kept the kids out of trouble,” said Ms. Thomas. “Music teaches them discipline.” If students have bad grades, they aren't allowed to play in the band.

Since Katrina, the Tipitina's Foundation's Instruments a Comin' program has been helping students obtain musical instruments and to learn to play them.

Music has also inspired many musicians to write songs about saving the wetlands in Louisiana, which would have helped protect New Orleans from Katrina by providing buffers between land and sea.

“We're losing wetlands the size of football fields every day,” said Ms. Thomas. “If you lose New Orleans, you've lost America,” she said.

Five-time Grammy winner and singer/songwriter, pianist and guitarist Malcolm John "Mac" Rebennack, Jr, known as Dr. John also expressed his concern about the wetlands as well as his love for the city.

“Thirty years ago we had a plan to build new wetlands,” he said, “but corruption in the state made the money go elsewhere.”

As a boy growing up in the bayou where people lived with the land, Dr. John learned how to hunt, fish and trap. However, 50 years later most of these wetlands are gone.

He performed his song, “Please Save Our Wetlands” on piano for conference attendees.

Dr. John now lives in New York but he retains the reputation not only as ambassador of New Orleans but as its social critic through his music.

For example, he has often railed against the influence of the oil companies whose 8,000 miles of man-made canals have played a role in Katrina's destruction.

The companies own the politicians who built the canals for “Black Gold,” the title of another song, despite the vulnerability of the coastline, he said.

Murphy Oil storage tanks spilled one million gallons of oil in St. Bernard Parish, one of the worst hit places in the city, due to Katrina's 145 mph landfall winds.

The City That Care Forgot, an album produced in 2007, won Dr. John his fifth Grammy. He said he wrote these songs because he found he couldn't live with himself if he didn't say something.

Seeing all the damage, having friends whose homes were destroyed and going to funerals was a real heart breaker for Dr. John. A post-Katrina function of the New Orleans Jazz Foundation was a great relief for people, he said. They were so glad to be there because it was a diversion from all funerals they had been attending. Now he is trying to save the city's Charity Hospital because “it has personally saved me a bunch of times.”

“Any civilization has health care,” he said as he riled against the hatred and confusion that had come out in the health care debate in Washington.

“It's simple to see what's going on. The insurance companies, chemical companies and pharmaceuticals have everyone locked in and they're making a fortune on people dying. That's not the thing to do. We all have a right to live.”

Dr. John is now working on a song about insurance companies turning their backs on Orleanians and stranding them such that they can't come home again.

“I love New Orleans and south Louisiana. It is a real sacred place.”

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Hurricane Katrina: Climate Change Begets Delta Urbanism

The famous canals of The Netherlands are not just unique tourist attractions. They are water control systems that help the Dutch in their battle against the ever-encroaching North Sea. Now this tiny country is now faced with a new, more grave challenge: rising seas caused by climate change.

“Climate change leaves us with no way back,” said Renée Jones-Bos, ambassador of The Netherlands to the United States. “We must rethink our cities and inhabitants because climate change is shattering any notion of having water under our control. We must realize that we can't use any land for any purpose.”

She spoke recently at the annual conference of the American Planning Association (APA) in New Orleans about “Delta Urbanism,” her country’s new concept of water control for cities located on deltas.

Delta urbanism addresses the water landscape as well as flood risk mitigation, urban design, green buildings, green roofs and climate proofing and other technologies that cope with sustainability and resiliency issues.

“The key is sophisticated, integrated water management and sound urban planning,” said Jones-Bos.

She went on to say that because international cooperation and collaboration produce better ideas and solutions for these difficult problems, the Dutch have initiated dialogues with engineers, urban planners and designers, landscape architects, and soil/hydrology experts in several delta cities of Europe and the United States as well as with Jakarta, Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, Taipei, Taiwan and Orangestad, Aruba. Participants also swap ideas about taxing residents and occupying new lands for increasing populations that are expected to create the new global problem of accommodating “climate refugees” who must escape land taken over by rising sea levels.

In fact, the Dutch were among the first to come to the rescue of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina’s surge flooded the city and then followed up with a series of meetings called the Dutch Dialogues.

“Thank God for the Dutch,” said Senator Mary Landrieu (D-La.) in a keynote address to the 5,000 planners at the APA conference. They provided “extraordinary expertise when our government failed to understand what happened here” after Katrina.

The first of the dialogues was held in March 2008 to explore if, where and how Dutch approaches to water management, landscape architecture, flood protection and urban design were relevant to New Orleans as it recovered from Hurricane Katrina.

Dutch Dialogues 2 was held in October 2008 and brought together 60 experts to develop illustrative solutions and design approaches that could make the city more flood-proof, sustainable, resilient and attractive from both urban design and economic perspectives.

The Dialogues have been developed, organized and supported by the Royal Netherlands Embassy in Washington, D.C., Waggonner & Ball Architects in New Orleans, the American Planning Association and the Netherlands Water Partners. Numerous local New Orleans organizations and individuals have supported the Dutch Dialogues with monetary and in-kind support.

Water problems in The Netherlands
With 70 percent of The Netherlands vulnerable to flooding in one of the most densely-populated urban areas of the world, the Dutch have struggled to stay high and dry over the past 1,000 years. After much trial and error, they developed a system of dikes in the 13th century, which proved that it was possible to live below sea level in a country the size of New Jersey.

They continued to have major floods but the 1953 flood was the worst with nearly 1,900 people killed and 50,000 buildings destroyed as a result of a vicious North Sea storm. That’s when the government created the 40-year Delta Works storm protection program, which included the construction of 62 floodgates on a 1.5-mile stretch of North Sea coastline. Levees near the delta city of Rotterdam were replaced with storm surge barriers.

Among the considerations that go into planning their systems are the currents and winds that shape the coastline. In the 19th century, they developed dredging technology to provide a coordinated and interconnected dike and drainage system that influenced the spatial organization of their cities. Dams were built, a traffic network was conceived, and dike belts with safety norms were created. Much of this infrastructure was built underground, so in the 1970s the government decided on another approach of flood control for four reasons.

First, the land is sinking and this makes their soil—and their food supply—vulnerable.

Second, their hydraulic infrastructure threatened the ecological habitat of oysters and lobsters so a new type of dam had to be constructed with an open-and-closed system to handle storm surges. This development marked the beginning of a changed mindset where environmental considerations were built into hydraulic designs.

Third, urban waterfront development has evolved from merely maintaining ports to finding relationships between safe buildings and hydraulic technology.

Fourth, climate change was contributing to higher seas in a country where half of it lies one meter above sea level and one-eighth is below sea level. Since 2008, the Delta Committee is helping the government identify the vulnerabilities of the system and find ways to protect it.

Always on the alert for flood control ideas, Dutch planners also discovered that engineers in Hamburg, Germany, are building elevated street systems and closing ground floors in buildings when floods occur. Today, the Dutch are trying to introduce similar flexibilities into their systems, like building houses on pillars and finding places where flood waters can go and be stored. However, these designs will not be sufficient because it is not known how they will work in extreme storms.

“We are trying to work with Nature instead of fighting against it,” said V.J. (Han) Meyer, professor of urban design at Delft University of Technology. “This has caused us to re-vision how we deal with water in urban areas. It has led us to a new program called Vision 2053.”

Vision 2053 approaches flood defense in new ways. Among the proposals are building earth dunes and beaches in front of the existing coastline instead of constructing higher dikes that can be weakened against the power of sea waves.

The Dutch also want to create more water storage areas and water networks in order to provide a new spatial element that binds cities together and denser neighborhood development. Netherlanders would also keep their water rather than throw it away.

Finally, they have begun a new project called Room for the Rivers that would create more space for river water to go in times of high discharge. Over 40 projects are planned (or in progress) and they will greatly influence urban design and architecture.

Meyer indicated that the Dutch strive for a three-layered approach to flood control: concern over the urban life of the city, infrastructure, and the underground. This approach aims to protect and deal with the environment and it shapes the look and functioning of cities.

The American Experience
It is interesting to note that the Dutch plan for “the big one” to occur in 10,000 years while the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers constructed a flood control system for New Orleans to protect against an extraordinarily bad storm occurring only once in 100 years.

Of course, the Netherlands is quite different from New Orleans, said Meyer.

The Rhine River in The Netherlands is a “small creek” compared to the mighty Mississippi, he said, so the Corps’ strategy would be comparable to one storm in 500 years by Dutch standards. Nevertheless, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been working on new strategies and new approaches toward flood control.

One lesson New Orleans has learned is to elevate the houses in low-lying areas, said Richard Campanella, associate director of Tulane University's Center for Bioenvironmental Research and a research professor with Tulane's Department of Earth and Environmental Science. The Lower 9th Ward and St. Bernard Parish had floods with depths of 18-20 feet so the “Brad Pitt houses” currently under construction are an example of what can be done to protect these homes.

“It is important that we build a city that doesn't have to evacuate,” he said.

Another lesson under consideration is about making water planning an integral part of other plans—including regional plans—like organizing space efficiently and sustainably, sharing costs among several governmental entities and boosting civic pride.

“I’ve always believed that we needed a water plan for New Orleans,” said David Waggonner of Waggonner & Ball Architects, New Orleans, in an interview with Planning Magazine (Ruth Eckdish Knack, AICP, August/September 2008).

“People think about the riverfront, but no one is thinking about water connections between the lake, and the river,” he said. “What we need is a strategic vision to inform the master plan. Hearing how the Dutch have turned their water resources into attractive assets is a good thing.”

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Hurricane Katrina: The Fate of New Orleans Hangs in an Uncomfortable Balance with Mother Nature

Hurricane Katrina demonstrated the havoc Mother Nature can play on a modern city.

It also brought to light the way our concerns about economics can compromise people’s safety when we attempt to control Nature.

Over one million people in the Gulf area were affected by “the storm,” as residents call it, including just about everyone in New Orleans. Ninety percent of this 485,000-person city evacuated as 125,000 homes were severely damaged and 250,000 homes were summarily destroyed.

“The 150 mph winds from the east funneled water into the man-made navigation canals and the Category 5 surge strength made the levees breach starting with the 17th Street Canal of the Industrial Canal,” said Richard Campanella, associate director of Tulane University's Center for Bioenvironmental Research and a research professor with Tulane's Department of Earth and Environmental Science. “Sixteen feet of water poured into an area that was four feet below sea level. That caused a flood of 20 feet in St. Bernard Parish and the Lower 9th Ward. This area had been developed after Hurricane Betsy [of 1965].”

“There was no electricity and the city was empty, with no sound, no birds and in complete darkness,” said Senator Mary Landrieu (D-La.) relating her feelings a few days after the storm as she looked over the city from a high bridge. The born and bred Orleanian and former mayor found Katrina's damage to be an unbelievable “out of body experience.”

They both spoke at the annual conference of the American Planning Association (APA) recently, which focused on the effects of Katrina and the recovery effort.

“Topography does matter,” said Campanella, who pointed out that sea level increased by four inches during the 20th century and predicted that in another 100 years they will rise another 41 inches, mostly due to climate change. (The U.S. Global Change Research Program reports that by 2100 global sea level is projected to rise 19 inches along most of the U.S. coastline.)

While the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is usually fingered as the culprit of Katrina flooding, responsibility really rests squarely on the shoulders of all those who believe they can control the Mississippi River and make the land something it is not. Actually, that includes just about everyone: the U.S. Congress that funds water projects, business and industry that demand these projects, and Americans who benefit or depend on the commerce conducted on the river.

The "Big Muddy"
The Mississippi River remains a key influence on life in the Crescent City. It stretches 2,320 miles from Lake Itasca, Minnesota, to the Gulf of Mexico, just 95 river miles south of New Orleans. The “Big Muddy” is the largest river system in North America and it includes all or parts of 31 states from the Rocky Mountains in the west to the Appalachian Mountains in the east to the U.S.-Canadian border in the north.

Every spring for thousand of years, the river’s banks have overflowed as million of tons of sand, silt and clay sediments settled and nourished wetlands and formed the delta coastline of southern Louisiana. Traditionally, the river and its distributaries were able to compensate for subsidence with fresh sediment spread in floods and decayed vegetation that turned into soil. That all changed when Congress decided it could tame the river.

Before cities were built, native peoples merely moved their stuff to higher and dryer ground when the floods came, and they continued with their lives, according to John McPhee (1990) in his book, The Control of Nature. In the nineteenth century, Congress funded the building of levees to hold back the floodwaters and several drainage projects in the wetlands as means of preventing disease and encouraging economic development. While this strategy has reaped hefty rewards for the farmers and industrialists who took advantage of the river’s navigational assets, it reveals the folly of the unremitting determination to control Nature with the Army Corps of Engineers at the helm.

The Mississippi River has served as a major navigation route for Native Americans, explorers, and modern commerce. In 1718 the French built a fort on the high ground of a portage route through Lake Pontchartrain and up the St. John Bayou. This fort would become the town of New Orleans. Even back then its soil was soft, the water table high, and the area prone to storms and floods. Nevertheless, the fort provided a strategic position for viewing ships about to enter the mouth of the Mississippi River. It also saved 100 extra miles of travel from the port cities of Biloxi and Mobile, which were both founded in 1682. A few months after the fort was built, tragedy struck and like a harbinger of bad things to come, the settlement flooded.

A series of geopolitical events in the late 18th century also greatly impacted New Orleans, said Campanella. The slave insurrection in Haiti in 1791, the cotton boom of 1793 and the granulation of sugar in 1795 made the city a major port. President Thomas Jefferson recognized the strategic and economic importance of the city at the mouth of the Mississippi River and bought it from Napoleon in 1803. He got half a billion more acres of land (863,072 square miles) stretching across the Great Plains on a good deal known as the Louisiana Purchase.

Steamboats running up and down the Mississippi River through the 1820s transformed New Orleans into a major agricultural center and an immigration port, second only to New York. However, the Erie Canal and the expansion of the railroad system in 1825 reversed the river's dominance as a transportation center. As Americans moved West into the Ohio Valley in the late 1840s and racial strife led to the Civil War in the 1860s, the city experienced further drops in population.

Campanella said that land in 19th century New Orleans was far more resilient than it is today because the whole area was at or above sea level and buffered by healthier wetlands. The first levees were built in 1828, that’s when the trouble started: the river refused to be confined and every once in a while it lashed out with a terrible flood.

In 1850 Congress wanted higher and stronger levees so it passed the Swamp and Overflow Land Act to give states bordering the Mississippi acres of land that they could then sell to help finance levee construction. Much of this land was a swamp, so farmers and plantation owners drained them and then demanded more flood protection.

The Army Corps of Engineers had been stationed in the area since the War of 1812 so it was asked to continue its presence. When Congress created the Mississippi River Commission in 1879, it assign the Corps the job of “prevent[ing] destructive floods.” The Corps took its orders seriously and for the next 125 years it built levees, gates, dams and reservoirs, spillways, floodways, and cutoffs. These efforts minimized the flooding, except in some exceptional years like 1973 and 1980, but the sea waters of the Gulf remained an ever-encroaching threat because of all the disruptions to the natural processes of the river.

Some people predict that in one hundred years, the Plaquemines and Terrebonne Parishes, now the ruined sites of the BP oil spill in the Gulf, will disappear into the sea. In fact, over the past 50 years half of Placquemines Parish has disappeared due to oil and gas pipelines, according to Oliver Houck, professor of environmental law at Tulane University.

Turning Up “the Heat”
The 20th century brought more federalized river control and levee construction as New Orleans became a modern city with a downtown, streetcar networks, electricity, skyscrapers, a municipal water treatment plant and sewage system as well as a world-class drainage system.

In 1950 the U.S. Congress ordered the Corps to maintain the “latitude flow” of the river at 30 percent in perpetuity. While this order makes sense to promote stability of cities and industries that lie between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, known as the “German coast” or the “American Ruhr,” the Mississippi River had other ideas, namely, to change course.

Actually, the Mississippi River changes course at its Gulf outlet once every thousand years. Currently, it has sought to divert more of its flow to the Atchafalaya River, a distributary of the Mississippi and Red Rivers, into the Atchafalaya Basin, the largest swamp in the United States. The Atchafalaya River is approximately 170 miles long and 60 miles west of New Orleans. A change of course would bypass river cities like New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Vicksburg, Natchez.

To solve this problem, the Corps built the Old River Control Structure in the 1940s where its floodgates could be opened and closed as needed. A film that showcased this project reveals the Corps’ confident “macho” approach toward its mission to save the economy from Nature, its declared enemy:

“This nation has a large and powerful adversary. Our opponent could cause the United States to lose nearly all her seaborne commerce, to lose her standing as first among trading nations….We are fighting Mother Nature….It’s a battle we have to fight day by day, year by year; the health of our economy depends on victory.”

Between 1950 and 1973 the “intensification of land use in the lower Mississippi” occurred through suburbanization, agriculture and the gas and oil industry, which helped make New Orleans a lot harder to protect against storms and the floods. In New Orleans, which is as much as 15 feet below sea level, two per cent is terra firm, 18 percent wetland and 80 percent water (McPhee, 1989).

As the city grew larger, it began to sink and by 2000 it was six to eight feet below sea level thus creating “the bowl” that Hurricane Katrina so catastrophically filled. The natural flooding and drainage of the Mississippi River had been ignored in favor of creating a canal and pumping system. And although Hurricane Betsy sounded the alarm in 1965 that this system literally rested on shaky ground, the water control projects continued.

For example, in 1960, the metropolitan area occupied 100 square miles with 630,000 residents. In 2005, it occupied 180 square miles with a population of 480,000. It didn't help that one-story suburban ranch houses built on concrete slabs in the most vulnerable areas had replaced the traditional shotgun houses that were raised off the ground. Today, less than 350,000 people live in the city after 90 percent of them evacuated because of Katrina.

Meanwhile, over the past 60 years, the oil and gas companies have built 8,000 miles of canals in the wetlands. These canals were dredged up to six or seven feet deep and 15- to 25-foot wide to accommodate the transportation of drilling rigs. However, a typical canal would double its width in five years through wetlands erosion.

The Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO) is an example of a shipping canal that eroded three times its original width and killed off 39,000 acres of cypress forest and wetlands between New Orleans and the Gulf. Over the years it allowed saltwater intrusion and tidal action to seep into freshwater ecosystems and turn the marsh into open muddy water. MRGO (pronounced Mr. Go) probably acted as a funnel for Katrina’s storm surge and helped overwhelm the levees. It was built in the 1950s as a response to its rival for trade, the St. Lawrence Seaway, which permits ocean-going vessels to travel between the Atlantic Ocean and the Great Lakes. After Katrina, MRGO, which was little-used by that time, was filled in.

“The rise of the petroleum industry and the building of new canals had all sorts of ecological impacts, including increased saltwater intrusion and continuing erosion of the wetlands,” said Campanella.

The delta region is comprised of wetlands that supports a vast diversity of wildlife and that protects people from storm surges. The wetlands have been eroding at the rate of about 25 square miles annually or about one football field every day. Katrina’s storm surge broke levees in 53 places and caused the flooding of New Orleans and many people are concerned about the dangers ahead for the region.

“The coast is sinking out of sight,” Houck. “We’ve reversed Mother Nature.”

“By 2050, the city will be closer to and more exposed to the Gulf of Mexico,” noted the authors of Coast 2050: Toward a Sustainable Coastal Louisiana, a 1998 coastal restoration plan put together by the State of Louisiana and the federal government.

Hurricane Katrina helped step up coastal erosion like the Chandeleur Islands, a 40-mile-long series of uninhabited barrier islands southeast of New Orleans. The storm took five meters of sand and marsh and left only half a meter, according to Gregory W. Stone, a coastal geologist at Louisiana State University.

“Wetlands and barrier islands are the first line of defense [against storms]. That means areas such as New Orleans would become more vulnerable to inundation,” said Stone.

Reconstruction of the Wetlands
For the past 20 years many efforts have aimed at restoring the wetlands but they require a lot of money and time and still depend on technological fixes that attempt to control Mother Nature (Tibbets, 2006).

For example, in 1990 Congress passed the Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection, and Restoration Act to rebuild the state’s natural infrastructure with 118 projects at $50 million per year. Appropriations were extended until September 2009.

Coast 2050 suggested that the Corps imitate the Mississippi River’s natural processes by diverting freshwater into the delta through pipelines and canals and push back saltwater intrusion from the Gulf. Also proposed was the dredging of soils and ancient sandbars to create new marshlands and shore up barrier islands as a defense against storms at a cost of $14 billion.

Kerry St. Pé, director of the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program has proposed that dredge material and sediments also be pumped through canals and pipelines to rebuild declining wetlands.

The 2005 Water resources Development Act provided $1.9 billion in federal money over 10 years for restoration of the delta.

Other ideas include allowing the Mississippi River to change course at its Gulf outlet in order to rebuild the western wetlands.

In 2005, Senator Mary Landrieu has proposed the Hurricane Katrina Disaster Relief and Economic Recovery Act to provide $250 billion for hurricane reconstruction with $40 billion for ecosystem restoration and levee improvement. Although she has brought in some relief monies, she has been unable to get this act passed.

Land loss in southern Louisiana “is not a local problem—it’s a national problem,” says Gregory W. Stone.

Works Cited

Jason Berry (June 1, 2010). BP Storm: Tulane Prof Oliver Houck Warned for Decades of Peril of Lax Energy Regulation. Politics Daily. (

John McPhee (1990). The Control of Nature. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

John Tibbetts (January 2006). Louisiana’s Wetlands: A Lesson in Nature Appreciation in Environmental Health Perspectives.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Go West, Young Man

I met with a former student, Brandon Faber, who is off to the Bob Cole Conservatory of Music at California State University, Long Beach, to study over the next two years for a master's degree in music with a specialization in orchestral conducting.

Brandon was the only student chosen for this conductor-in-training post where he will work with German-born conductor Johannes Müller-Stosch. The professor is director of orchestral studies and professor of conducting at the conservatory. Müller-Stosch also serves as music director and conductor of the Holland Symphony Orchestra (Michigan).

Brandon was on his way West when he and I met at the Food Dance Restaurant for lunch.

This is a photo of Brandon in his 20-year-old Crown Victoria that is also part of his great adventure of traversing the country for the first time. He will stay with friends in Chicago, Des Moines, Boulder, and Las Vegas before he settles down in Long Beach. Good luck Brandon!!

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Farm Journal: Harvesting, Husbandry, and Hoof Trimming

It’s been a good month so far. I’m keeping up with the weeds. The potato and onion plantss are getting bigger. And, I’m starting to harvest my crops!

It’s truly exciting to pull up a plant to see what it will bring. You can’t tell from the plant above ground. I suppose, like plant growth, the bounty below ground, is part of the mystery of gardening, too.

My onions came in different sizes and they went nicely on my tomato salad. I cut them so they looked like little curls of pasta. Then I added cucumbers, green and yellow beans, chopped hard boiled eggs, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and oregano. Delicious! The taste of the onions were especially prominent.

The potato plants were another story. Ron suggested I pull up a plant or two and find out how they are doing. I was hesitant to do this at first because I didn’t want to waste the plant if there was nothing there. On the other hand, there is no other way to know if the plants are ready to harvest or not. I tried a plant in the first row and was disappointed that there was nothing there. I dug deep under the plant and then noticed that the roots had very tiny potatoes on them. Not wanting to waste the plant, I stuck it back into the ground and hope it will continue to grow.

Ron tried another plant. He found only new potatoes and then gave them to me. (I baked them and they were alright, not as good as last year’s crop. I hope they improve as they grow in the ground longer.)

Later I tried another plant in another part of the field and found more new potatoes but nowhere near the amount for harvest. Each plant should yield about five pounds. I sure hope they are ready for harvest in a couple weeks so that I can sell them to Asiago’s for the Texas Township picnic!

Donna asked me to estimate the amount of time I spent on the potatoes and I calculated about 80 hours over the past two months. A lot of that time was spent pulling weeds that had overgrown the fields—twice. And it took place in 90-degree heat and made the work so much harder. Now I keep up with the weeds. Once a week seems to be about right.

I am realizing this summer how difficult it is to understand how much time and effort it takes to maintain a well-kept field. It all looks so easy but the key ingredient is caring for the plants and paying attention to detail. Wendell Berry in his anthology of essays, Bringing It to the Table, talks about the “communion between farmer as husband and the well-husbanded farm.” This kind of farming—so different from conventional industrial agriculture—is “a cultural force” that fits the farming to the farm, to the land, to the family, and to the local economy. That makes a lot of sense to me both in what I have observed in Ron’s farm husbandry and in what I am learning from this gardening project.

Hoof Trimming for Goats
We trimmed the goats’ hooves and some of them badly needed it. This is a task that must be done periodically otherwise the goats don’t stand up properly.

Goats in the wild obviously don’t get their hooves trimmed because as they walk, run, and jump on rocks and hard ground and that wears away the “skin” that grows over their hooves. Domestic goats that hang out in pastures where the ground is soft and grassy don’t have the same luxury as wild goats so they must go through this “nail clipping” process.

To trim the hooves, we have each goat jump up on the milk stand. This elevates her and makes it easier to bend each leg and work on the hoof. To hold her still, we lock her head in place over a feed bucket that has some delicious grain that is coated with molasses. This provides her with a great distraction--and the satisfaction of her sweet tooth. One of my jobs is to re-fill the grain bucket.

Trimming the hooves goes best when two people work together so I get to hold the goat’s head, pet her, talk to her and try to calm her down while Ron trims the hooves. Sometimes I brush the goats, which is one of their great pleasures.

Most of the goats cooperate with the necessary inconvenience of hoof trimming but some are skittish, squirmy, or agitated. In that case, Ron has to put their lower abdomen on his knee which shifts their thighs forward and lifts their hind feet off the floor. This requires a lot of strength on his part, as so much of farming does. The goats usually calm down at this point, maybe just to get out of this unnatural position.

It is also my job to fetch a goat and to make sure each one receives treatment. Today, Lucy and Dina were out on the pasture and “unavailable” for trimming. Bad little goats! They are supposed to stay with the herd and not go out for a jaunt anytime they feel like it. It is also not good survival behavior because they can be picked off easily by predators. Fortunately, they are safe on the farm but that kind of independence is not a good trait to be passed on to their progeny.

Last summer, one beautiful, jet black older goat was especially bad. She’d run away when approached, act up during hoof trimming, exhibit loner behavior, and just in general be very disruptive. When she didn’t conceive for three seasons after being bred the vet concluded that she have been barren. So Ron determined she had to be culled from the herd. He says that it's important for the goats to be compliant and that a farmer must not only maintain control over his goats, they must contribute to the dairy by bearing kids and producing milk.

Taking command over the goats is still something I have trouble doing. This is especially necessary when I open the exit door of the milk room to let out a newly-trimmed goat back into the loafing room of the barn. Invariably, the other goats who want to get back to the grain bucket try to storm their way in. If I don’t slide the door fast enough, the goats play their favorite little game of coming into the milk room and wandering around in circles as though this were the most natural thing in the world to do. They think this is really funny and actually, it is, unless you're busy. Frequently, I laugh as I try to get them out, but Ron gets annoyed at this behavior because it means we’ve lost control over the goats.

The key to restoring order is to know that it can be done. To do this, we take each goat separately by the collar or push her out out of the milk room at her butt end. This takes a lot of strength with the mature goats. The younger and lighter goats can sometimes just be picked up and taken out.


It is interesting to me that hoof trimming for goats is like hilling and weeding each potato plant: it requires individual attention. When I bring in a goat from the barn to the milk room, I am reminded of who she is and maybe recall something funny she has done. Ron also reacts to each goat as she enters the room. Sometimes, I think he is anticipating the goat’s behavior, but sometimes he must think about his relationship to the goat because he frequently shares a story about her. He is definitely a farmer who knows and loves his goats!

There is something sacramental about all this that reminds me of the Mass where each person receives communion with the words: “the body of Christ.” It takes time and it’s repetitious to go through the whole crowd, especially when the church is full, but the distribution of the Eucharist is done with a personal regard for each member of the community. I’m sure as the priest distributes communion, he probably remembers something many of the people, too, just as we do the goats.


The kids received collars today. These collars allow us to lead each goat, which is a behavior and control mechanism for getting them to go where we want them to go.

The doelings have been wearing their collars for the past year but we have not trained them to lead yet. I’m looking forward to doing that. Ron also told me he wants me to trim the goats’ hooves next time, which will probably be at the new farm. I’m ready and willing to do this as it gives me more responsibility to care for the goats.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Farm Journal: A Developing Philosophy on Weeding

I have spent a lot of time talking about weeding over these past couple months. Now I feel compelled to be more philosophical.

* First of all, Donna taught me that there’s another more romantic word for this dirty job that can make it seem more important and thus stimulate my doing it. That word is: cultivate. I don’t know what I thought the word meant before I started gardening last year. Most likely, I never thought about it. However, cultivating a garden also means making sure the plant gets more of the nutrients from the soil rather than waste it on weeds. So cultivation has a lot to do with caring for and nurturing the plants, which then moves me toward having a relationship with the plants and the garden in general. I know people who talk to their plants so this is another aspect involved in cultivation, which involves coaxing them to grow and produce nice, healthy fruit. Cultivating plants also inspires thoughts and meditations, which is what happened to me in the onion patch (see June 21 – “Meditation Over the Onions”). Long live cultivation!

* Even though I have a field of plants, to care for them I must pay attention to each individual plant to make sure it is clear of weeds and properly propped up with dirt. This individuality of the plant reminds me of the way the Church treats people with the sacraments. Every person gets the same personal message, like “the body of Christ” when the Eucharist is distributed.

* Weeds are wimps. They don’t hold the ground like the vegetable plants do so they come out fairly easily. Of course, if I let them go too long, they will grab the soil, thicken their stems, and be more difficult to pull out.

* I finally experienced the joy of the garden that Ron promised. By the end of the month I had done two full loads of weeds and now after just a week away, there were hardly any weeds in the potatoes and onions. I had hilled each plant, too, and so the individual plants weren’t intertwinng with each other as much. That means the rows between the plants were distinct and beautiful. Ah, the marvels of gardening and what it means to care about it.

* In the expanse of the garden, I find that different parts of it have different kinds of weeds that I can expect to see. Purslane grows in the southwestern corner while lambs quarters are more popular in the northeastern corner. Ron had planted amaranth (quinoa) one year in the northern corner and volunteers were still coming up. Knowing the land helps me come to expect certain weeds and spot them more easily.

* I became so obsessed with weeding that I began to dream about them. This was a peculiar experience. It’s as though I were training myself to see the little buggers more easily and distinguish them from the potato plants, especially those plants that became very bushy and spread themselves over the ground more extensively. Some of the weeds actually intertwined themselves with the plant as though they thought they could hide so I had to untangle some of them and dispose of them.

* While the weeds are not good for my plants, some of them are good for the animals. At times I have thrown the weeds over the fence for the goats to graze them. And they love it. Of course, some weeds, like milkweed, is not good for the goats so I have to be careful not to include them.